I Coulda Had a Medal

It was not until August 25, 2010, that I decided to run the 2010 North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run (NC24) in Cleveland, Ohio. Up until the day before, I assumed that I would not be able to participate, and have done no ultramarathon training at all since 2008.

The year 2010 has marked my return to running, following a period of inactivity resulting mostly from fallout following my move from Arizona to Ohio, the aftershocks of which continue to haunt me. During 2008, I ran less then half the mileage that I averaged the ten previous years. By the end of 2008 I decided to stick to long distance walking, declaring myself thenceforth and evermore to be an Urban Walker; no longer would I run ultramarathons, except perhaps races I could walk.

Life changed dramatically for me in 2009. Gradually I began running again on a regular basis, at first in tiny bits, but ending the year with 650 miles more than in 2008. Beginning on January 1, 2010, I successfully negotiated a 100-day running-and-walking streak, through the ice and snow of dead winter, ending with a forty-mile walk on April 10, followed by eight non-consecutive rest days the remainder of April. On May 1, I began streaking once again, aiming to continue until Labor Day, gradually increasing the ratio of running to walking. Along with the benefits of all this has come the loss of over twenty pounds of slob, which has certainly helped my running, not to mention the general state of my health.

In late spring my daughter invited me to run a half marathon with her this fall — her first. How could I refuse? So we signed up to run the Nationwide Better Health Columbus Half Marathon on October 17, four weeks from now.

Therefore, the type of running that I’ve been doing lately has been focused around increasing the distance I can run continuously. It was just a few years ago that I occasionally knocked off training weeks with mileages in the seventies, and performed feats like running ten no-walking half-marathons in ten days. But I can’t do that any more. So far my biggest running day of 2010 has been when I ran 12.3 non-stop miles on a hot day in late August. I stopped there because I ran out of trail, but I couldn’t have gone too much further.

The last several weeks I’ve experienced recurring pain on the top of my left foot. It’s not bad enough to make me lay off, but it hasn’t gone away, either, and it’s been more than a minor annoyance. I probably should do something about it, but I tend to belong to the “ignore it and maybe it’ll go away” school of medical treatment.

Then, on September 2, at two and half miles into a ten kilometer out and back, disaster struck, when a sharp pain shot through my right Achilles tendon, causing me to pull up short with a howl. I knew immediately that I was injured for real, and that it would be impossible to go on. Unfortunately, there was no way to get back to my car except to limp cautiously at a twenty-four minute per mile pace. The next day was the first day I took off exercising since April 30, just a few days short of my Labor Day goal. I began immediately with stretching and icing my heel.

Starting the next day I ventured forth cautiously on a few very slow, short walks. There was little I could do but accept that I would have to endure an enforced fifteen-day taper heading into a 24-hour race that I had decided to run barely a week before.

On September 11, 2010, I experimented with a cautious run-walk strategy, in which I counted steps in cycles of four, starting with sixteen, but never going higher than eighty: 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, … 80-2-3-4 (320 steps total), breathing in two steps, breathing out two steps. It worked so well that I was confident I would be all right on race day, so didn’t run another step until the race, but did walk four, three, two, and two miles the week before race day, and took the last two days completely off.

That is — except that NC24 race director Dan Horvath asked if I could show up in Medina, Ohio, the afternoon before the race to help load the truck they’d rented. Sure, I was happy to do that — until I saw the Ryder truck big enough to move an entire warehouse together with the mass of stuff that had to be hauled out of a basement, up a hill, and loaded onto the truck, including over a hundred cases of water, forty-eight pounds each, almost as much Gatorade, and plenty of other stuff with some heft to it, upon which I began to have visions of my race about to fly out the window. Fortunately, about ten people, including Connie Gardner and Nick Coury, who both had exceptional races, also showed up to help.

Contrary to expectations, the hour and a half of non-stop lifting and carrying worked like a miracle drug, as it helped to flush out the poisons of accumulated lethargy, leaving me exhilarated rather than tired.

Between gimpy feet and having almost no time at all to prepare for the race, I did way better than expected. My elevator speech version of the race is this: I had an outstanding first twelve hours, melted down quickly after that, but did better than last year.

On race morning I timed getting ready about as perfectly as possible. I arrived at Edgewater Park at 7:35 a.m., leaving me time to set up at a leisurely pace, then get over to hear the pre-race briefing, leaving almost no time to waste sitting around getting nervous.

My preference the past several fixed-time races I’ve run has been to operate with a minimalist trackside arrangement, consisting of a camp chair, and a small folding table with a gym bag containing a few things that might be required, most of which I didn’t need at all. The table served mostly as a place to set my trusty Ultimate Direction 26-ounce water bottle, the type with a kicker valve.

While I’m happy to have a little assistance when it’s available, I’ve long been accustomed to running these races without support. Maybe I would run them better if I had one of those spacious and festively decorated canopy tents staffed with a large crew of zealous sponsors, friends, and family who don’t mind sitting outside all night while watching me lumber by and grumble at them them every fifteen minutes or so. But somehow I don’t think it would help enough to make the trouble worth it.

This year the race date was bumped a couple of weeks earlier than last year in order to minimize the possibility of disagreeable weather. The temperature reached the upper seventies, probably hotter in late afternoon on this unshaded asphalt bike path. Easterners consider this to be uncomfortable, or at least a bit too warm to perform optimally, but it never was uncomfortable to this thirty-year Arizona desert man. In the evening the temperature never got below the mid-fifties, if that low. Many male runners ran shirtless all through the night, even when thick black clouds loomed up over the lake and threatened a downpour. I put on my rain slicker when rain appeared to be imminent, but we never got more than a couple of drops. Other than that and a brief experiment with a light jacket, which I shed after one lap, I never changed any item of clothing the whole race.

One thing is certain: in any given setting, weather conditions are shared equally by everyone, for better or for worse.

When the race started, I concentrated on the technique of fixed-time run-walk that worked so well for me the week before. And so it was that I shuffled along about three quarters of every 0.9-mile loop, not doing a walk-only loop until 7:20 PM (the time I finished it), then continuing until twelve hours race time, stopping only to grab something to eat or drink from the aid station table and once for a sixty-second portapotty stop.

Some sights and experiences seen along the way:

In mid-afternoon a drum circle formed in the park to the east of the race village. They must have played for three hours. Most runners were happy about their being there.

In mid-evening some pretty people showed up: a good-looking tall man and his beautiful female companion, dressed as if they were on their way to the Oscars. The man smiled from ear to ear, wore a shiny silver buckle the size of a serving tray, and glad handed every runner who passed by, including me. I’m told they were on their way to a wedding and had just stopped by to cheer someone they knew, but they were there for at least an hour. At least one briefly strapped a race number on over dress clothes, but I never saw either one run.

On one lap late at night I talked with a young woman from New York who had been stung by some inconsiderate insect. I heard her howl when it happened. She told me she had reasoned that God was punishing her because she chose to come to the race rather than observe her Day of Atonement.

Both last year and this year the lone street crossing on the course was manned for several hours during the graveyard shift by an arrogant, potbellied cop, who fouled the air with his six-inch cigar and rude language hurled at drivers who had been stopped to wait for runners; in fairness, I never heard him say anything objectionable to any runner or volunteer. But he behaved exactly the same way last year. I hope he doesn’t come back again. We don’t need to listen to some comic book flatfoot abusing our long-suffering family and crew members coming and going during the night.

At twelve hours I had completed forty-five miles. To be more precise, I finished my fiftieth lap of the 0.90075-mile certified loop, giving me 45.0375 miles, when the race clock said 12:00:07. I saw it turn over to 12:00:00 from a few yards out.

Whereas this mark doesn’t constitute an elite performance, its value may be appreciated better by putting it in contextual perspective. The number is comparable to or better than several 12-hour races I ran when I was five to seven years younger, and in my best ultrarunning shape ever. I’ve recorded three 12-hour all-night races of 43.8087, 45.05, and 43.1873 miles. Also, the 12-hour splits that I have from 72-hour races are: 38.836 (2008) 39.150 (2007), 42.253 (2006), 46.292 (2005, the year I hustled to earn my 1000-mile lifetime mileage jacket), and 45.673 miles in 2004, my PR year. Last year at NC24 (2009), when I was barely breathing, I logged around 39 miles by the twelve-hour mark, and finished with a miserable 60.98 miles, walking the whole race, and sleeping about four hours.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the wheels to fall off in the second half. I decided I would walk one lap; then I walked another. Then I just kept walking and never ran another step the rest of the race.

During the first twelve hours I did all the right things. I must have drunk at least eight 26-ounce bottles of water, several cups of Vernor’s ginger ale (a life-giving substance if there ever was one), and quantities of Coke and root beer. I took Succeed! electrolyte capsules no less frequently than hourly, and never felt dehydrated. I ate something at least every other lap, even if it was only a couple of cookies. I started to feel full.

From forty-five to fifty miles, my condition deteriorated rapidly, and from fifty to fifty-two miles I went into a tailspin from which I never recovered.

Eating became a problem. I tried to survive entirely on race food. Unfortunately, I don’t do very well with typical race food. Dried peanut butter and jelly sandwich squares, pretzels, noodle soup and potatoes that are microwaved, but are room temperature or colder by the time I get them, get old quickly. Searingly hot food is difficult to consume, but it cools off, and needs to be palatable when it’s consumed to be effective.

It must have been just after 9:00 p.m. when they brought out the pizza, which, unlike any of the other food, was piping hot. There were three kinds: plain (meaning cheese and tomato sauce), vegetable, and vegan, but both the latter two had olives. I don’t like olives, and was in no mood to pick them off, so I went with the plain. Real big mistake. It was not long afterward when I began to feel my first pangs of nausea. It was never extreme, just sufficiently unpleasant to make me not want to start running again — or eating either, and to stop on occasion to lean over the edge of the path, just in case my body chose to spontaneously jettison the evil turbulence inside. Fortunately, I had some antacid, which helped the burning, but the nausea persisted until sunup.

During the later hours I observed that few runners were stopping at the aid station. It occurred to me that the best-fed runners are probably the ones who bring crews that serve them all their own favorite special stuff, from Scott Jurekian hummus and fruit smoothies to greasy hamburgers and fries. Different things work for different runners.

After the race we received a generous hot breakfast of egg burrito, rice, and pancakes, but I was able to swallow only about a third of it, and chucked the rest. On the way home in late afternoon I stopped at a McDonald’s and bought a chocolate shake, ordinarily Something Very Bad for you, but I needed something cool and sweet and soothing. It hit the spot.

However, it was not food that was my downfall during the race, but sleepiness — as it was also last year. I’ve reached the stage in life where it’s not unusual for me to take a ten-minute nap in the afternoon not long after a run. There’s little I can do to fight the urge, and no point in trying.

But it’s different when you’re in a race. I’ve gone a full 24 hours and longer several times without needing to sleep, including every 100-mile trail race I’ve ever done when I didn’t DNF before that time.

At last year’s NC24 I felt drugged, and experienced the same thing this year. On Saturday I went fourteen and a half hours without a single break of any kind, but during the thirteenth hour my eyelids began to droop, and soon I was walking at a 22:00 pace, zig-zagging across the path, occasionally walking off the edge, and wanting nothing more than to lie down and curl up in the grass.

I had caffeine tablets in my pocket pill dispenser, and contemplated taking one. Their effect on me is unpredictable. Sometimes they serve as a wonder drug, charging me into a dynamo; and sometimes they do nothing but make me nauseated. In 2009 my reward for taking one was the dry heaves. Since I was already experiencing that unpleasantness, I had no desire to exacerbate it, so I passed on the caffeine. Would it have helped? I’ll never know.

That left only sleep as an alternative. I still don’t know which is tougher in a 24-hour race: struggling to fight off the mounting sleeplessness, which does sometimes pass, or trying to get moving again after sleeping a short period and awaking to find I’ve locked up tight as a drum, nearly need a cane to prop myself upright, and that I walk like Frankenstein’s monster for the first lap.

This year, as last year, I found that a brief nap in my chair was insufficient to knock the urge out of me. Each time I woke up, I re-evaluated my goals for the race. At twelve hours, I was optimistic that I would reach eighty miles. That hope got cut back to seventy-five, then seventy, and finally I acquiesced to the inevitability that at the very least I would do better than last year. By 6:00 a.m. I realized that I wasn’t having a lot of fun any more, and just wanted the race to be over, so I headed to my car, where I could sit and sleep more comfortably than I had in my trackside chair, with no pillow or support. At 7:30, it was light out, and I was finally no longer sleepy, so I headed out to the track and stuck it out to the end, but still moved glacially because of the stiffness that had set in.

There is absolutely no getting around how incredibly hard these races are to do. There is no faking it if one is unprepared and hopes to go the whole twenty-four hours. The lesson may be: the secret to enjoying the experience is to be in good enough shape that the fun part lasts long enough that you never get to the miserable part, which is certain to arrive if you keep at it long enough.

My prediction proved to be accurate. My total came up to 65.514 miles, ninety-eighth place overall out of 147 runners total. At least I wasn’t even close to dead last. (Ninety-eighth out of 147 puts me exactly in the sixty-sixth percentile.) Plus I really am an old guy now — it’s not just something I joke about — so I can use that as an excuse.

Another state I’ve reached is being able to take home age group hardware by just showing up. USATF championships go deep into the age groups. Unfortunately, one must be a USATF member to get it, and I was too cheap to join. If I had, I would have gotten second place in my age group, with one of the nicer looking medals I’ve seen to accompany the honor. There was in fact, one person in my age group who finished after me, but he isn’t in USATF either. The medals may be only so much bling, but I’ve never gotten an age group medal ever, and after all NC24 is a national championship, not just another race.

I could write more about the good runners who performed well, but I won’t, because this is my report, not theirs. The results are on the race website for all to admire. But I was especially happy to see Nick Coury get third place in the men’s division, earning an opportunity to represent the US on the national team in Switzerland next year. I’ve known Nick since he was eighteen, when he and his two brothers first showed up at Across the Years. As of this year, Nick and his older brother Jamil have taken over management of Across the Years as co-race directors, and I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with them this year once again on the race website, which will be my last year of doing so.

And although I don’t know her well personally, I watched Connie Gardner hammer out a superlative race, winning it with over 141 miles, about three miles short of the record held since 1993 by the great Sue Ellen Trapp. Still no record for Connie, but no one doubts that she is one of the strongest runners currently in the game.

As for me: interestingly, my feet, which had me so worried, caused me no trouble at all. I didn’t even get blisters, although I’ll probably lose a couple of toenails. Sometimes my back also gives out. Not so this race. I’m sore all over, but the truth is, I’m just fine, and will be running again in a couple of days.

Most importantly, I’m happier about what I did the first twelve hours of NC24 than I am disappointed about the second twelve hours; it taught me that I can still run at least a little bit if I really want to.

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About Lynn

o Writer and Editor o Computer Technologist o Composer o Ultrarunner
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